There is a rather interesting sutta in the Samyutta in which the Buddha illustrates the meaning and significance of the term sankharo in a straightforward manner:
Idha bhikkhave, assutavā puthujjano ariyānaṃ adassāvī ariyadhammassa akovido ariyadhamme avinīto, sappurisānaṃ adassāvī sappurisadhammassa akovido sappurisadhamme avinīto rūpaṃ attato samanupassati. Yā kho pana sā, bhikkhave, samanupassanā saṅkhāro so. So pana saṅkhāro kiṃnidāno kiṃsamudayo kiṃjātiko kiṃpabhavo? Avijjāsamphassajena, bhikkhave, vedayitena phuṭṭhassa assutavato puthujjanassa uppannā taṇhā; tatojo so saṅkhāro. Iti kho, bhikkhave, sopi saṅkhāro anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. Sāpi taṇhā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā. Sāpi vedanā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā. Sopi phasso anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. Sāpi avijjā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā Evampi kho, bhikkhave, jānato evaṃ passato anantarā āsavānaṃ khayo hoti. (SN Khandhavaggo )
In this particular sutta some monks are eager to hear the Buddha talk about the Dhamma. The Buddha had gone into seclusion but it seems they missed listening to him. So they convince Venerable Ananda to beseach the teacher. After the main discourse the Buddha catches the thought of one monk who wonders how Arahantship can be attained at all. This is the moment where the Buddha seems to simplify or boil down his whole teaching in yet another way. He says:
“”I have analyzed & taught you the Dhamma, monks. I have analyzed & taught you the four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, & the noble eightfold path. And yet, even though I have analyzed & taught you the Dhamma, still there appears this train of thought in the awareness of one of the monks: ‘Now I wonder — knowing in what way, seeing in what way, does one without delay put an end to the effluents?’
“Well then [a teacher’s sigh :-)]— knowing in what way, seeing in what way, does one without delay put an end to the influxes? There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes [lit. looks at it] form to be the self. That way of looking is an imagination (sankhara). Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that imagination? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact in not-knowing (all this going on), craving arises. That imagination/representation is born of that. And that imagination is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That not-knowing is inconstant, imagined, dependently co-arisen. It is by knowing & seeing in this way that one without delay puts an end to the influxes.” (SN, Khandhavagga, Parileyyaka Sutta)
Here he restates our existential experience using the categories of the 5 groups of grasping.
The beauty of this term sankhara is the correlation to a theater performance. Sankhara carries the meaning of “presentation”, “imagination”, “show” – “Vor-Stellung” in German (Remember Schopenhauer’s “Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” – “World as Will and Representation”) is created by our imagining things (“vor-stellen”, to mentally put up a presentation). In the same sense does the Buddha’s usage of sankharas work. These are our concepts about the world, our imagination, our representation of how the world “seems” after it comes into being by phasso or sense contact, of how it “presents itself to us”. To see this, of course, is quite difficult – but not impossible.
If you stop reading for a moment and look around you. At whatever you look whatever “presents” itself to you, you will “imagine” a “you” sitting in a “here” confronted by a “there”. It comes so natural, you cannot even think differently. This is how your mind processes the sense information – creating an image of yourself within your surroundings.
In this short sutta, the Buddha says that this is happening because of “Avijjāsamphassajena”. A beautiful short concise description: “born-through-not-knowing-sense-contact” or “born/originating because sense contact is not known/one is ignorant of the sense contact)
Sure, a vipassana meditator might say. Once my pure attention starts to become so intense that i can “watch/know” how the sense impressions come and go my compounded/congregated perceptions of a “me” in a world become very thin. The minds ability to perform this theater performance is limited because attention stops short at sense contact where feeling, perception and sankharas are generated, mirrored through consciousness induced by forms. This is the twofold bundle of hay form&name on the one side and ‘consciousness’ on the other, both of which keep our ‘being’ flowing in this theatrical reality show.
Overall, this one sentence is a summary of the whole core of the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination and as such of his teaching as a whole:
Avijjāsamphassajena, bhikkhave, vedayitena phuṭṭhassa assutavato puthujjanassa uppannā taṇhā;
O monks, for the uninstructed ordinary person hit by a feeling born out of sensual contact in ignorance (in not being able to observe this feeling at the moment of contact) (then) arises thirst.
There you go. So even the fully relaxed flower girl “in harmony” with the universe sitting on a meadow in a late summer day content with herself and nature experiences right in that moment sense objects, i.e. forms which give rise to thirst. In the same manner, the tourist on vacation at the beach looking at an amazing sunset experiences a moment of thirst. Tanha, which is very often roughly translated as “craving” or “desire” should rather be left translated as literal as it gets, tanha = thirst – because it is this inherent attachment toward any sense experience which binds us to samsara on a “psychological” level. So even if there seems to be no craving at all, we are still bound to being (bhava) in those moments.
So, when a bulldozer suddenly shows up at the meadow or the party noise destroys the silent moment of our seemingly content spectator at the beach this inherent “thirst” towards the presentation is the source of pain, mental and physical, because to live is to change, and that is why
yam aniccam tam dukkham. yam dukkham tam anatta.
what is impermanent is unsatisfactory, is empty of self. But, as this sutta continues right away, the good news is that this process is conditioned. It is not written in stone. If it would be an irreversable natural law there would be no way to remove those conditions. And the Bodhisatta still looking for a release was looking for an irreversable transformation. One which he found beyond “the all” of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, feeling or even thinking.
Now, lets have a look at the part in the sutta which describes the experience of the enlightened one:
Iti kho, bhikkhave, sopi saṅkhāro anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. Sāpi taṇhā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā. Sāpi vedanā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā. Sopi phasso anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. Sāpi avijjā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, jānato evaṃ passato anantarā āsavānaṃ khayo hotī”ti.
Like a meditation instruction: This imagination is conditioned. This thirst is conditioned. This feeling too, is impermanent and conditioned. Sense contact is with condition as well – and so is the ignorance of this whole process. So also this ignorance can vanish (and be replaced by knowing ones own knowing.) This is the path which will lead to the end of overwhelming in-fluences, tendencies, defilements.
Therefore, a translation of “mental formations” might be in line with an Abhidhamma mechanical analysis but completely mis-represents (LOL) the simple original term the Buddha used when trying to explain his teaching to village folks. They knew what a theatre show was, they knew what imagining was – they had no clue what “mental formations” are – and neither do we.
PS: Enjoy watching your own movie experience going on after reading and thinking about this article…Maybe you can catch the theatrical performance as such and not fall for the overwhelming content.